Bryson's America: The Michael Fish Hurricane Prediction Syndrome

GOODNESS ME, can you believe it, another year gone already, I don't know where the time goes. Same place as my hair, I guess.

I was going to write this week about my New Year's resolutions, but unfortunately the first resolution I made this year was not to make any resolutions I couldn't keep. (I'm not even sure I can keep that one), and that put an end to it. So I thought we might instead have a little review of the year.

As always when one is working on the leading edge of investigative journalism (or, in the case of this column, just blathering on week after week) there are loose ends to be tied up, and what better time to do it than on the brink of a new year?

One of the more dismaying aspects of writing for print, I have found, is that as soon as you make a statement - almost any statement at all - it will generally be contradicted by developments. Last March, for instance, I filed a glowing report about what a safe and delightfully crime-free community our little New Hampshire town is. Well, wouldn't you know it, but not four days after that article appeared a pair of masked men burst into a jeweller's shop on Main Street and, waving handguns in a lively manner, took away a large but undisclosed amount of cash and baubles. A day or so later, a woman was politely mugged as she strolled beside the college campus. Neither of these things had happened here before - nor, I might add, since - but it did seem a trifle uncanny that there should be a sudden eruption of malfeasance in the very week that I suggested it was unknown in these parts.

I don't mean to suggest that there is anything mystical in this; more that there is a kind of sod's law of public discourse that anything you write or say will instantly be undone by events - what you might call the Michael Fish Hurricane Prediction Syndrome. Still, if you are of a paranoid bent, as I am, you begin to feel an uneasy sense of responsibility. In October I made some passing quip about the music of John Denver. The next day he fatally crashed his plane into the sea, poor man.

On the other hand, I did have a couple of proud and prescient moments. In July I wrote about how alarmingly slack America is concerning food safety and hygiene, and not three weeks later, as if on cue, a huge Hudson's Food processing plant in Nebraska was shut down after it was found that it was, well, alarmingly slack about food safety and hygiene. More than pounds 22m worth of beef had to be tracked down and destroyed - the biggest food recall in history.

At about the same time, the US Senate held hearings at which the head of the Internal Revenue Service, America's tax-collecting agency, was roundly criticised and delightfully humiliated for overseeing a department that was inefficient, heartless, vindictive and incompetent. I don't wish to boast, but the record will show that I had made all this manifestly clear in these pages as far back as last April.

The biggest story of the year was the disappearance of a jet aircraft in the woods near here. A year ago Christmas Eve, as you may dimly recall from my column of last February, a Lear jet carrying two men was to make a routine landing when it abruptly lost radio contact and disappeared from the control tower's radar screen. Over the next few weeks the biggest ground and air search in the state's history was undertaken, but the plane was not found. A year later, it still has not been found and the mystery of what became of it has only deepened.

A big element of the mystery is that an exceptionally large number of people - 275 at last count - claim to have seen the jet just before it crashed. Some said they were close enough to see the two men peering out of the windows. The trouble is that these witnesses were widely scattered across two states, in locations up to 175 miles apart. Clearly they can't all have seen the plane in the moments before it crashed, so what did they see?

A good deal of other news about that fateful flight has emerged since I wrote about the plane's disappearance. The most startling news to me was that a plane vanishing in the New Hampshire woods is not that exceptional an event. In 1959, according to our local paper, two professors from the university here went down in the woods in a light plane during a winter storm. Notes they left behind showed that they survived for at least four days. Unfortunately, their plane was not found for two and a half months. Two years later, another light plane disappeared in the woods and wasn't found for six months. A third plane crashed in 1966 and wasn't found until 1972, long after most people had forgotten about it. The woods, it seems, can swallow a lot of wreckage and not give much away.

Even so, the utter disappearance of a Lear jet seems inexplicable. To begin with, a Lear jet is a big plane, with a wingspan of 40 feet. You wouldn't think that something that large could vanish without trace. Then there was all the technology that could now be brought to bear - heat sensors, infra-red viewers, long-range metal detectors and the like. The Air Force even lent the use of a reconnaissance satellite. All to no avail. The fate of the doomed plane is as much a mystery now as it was a year ago.

To my surprise, the column that generated more post than any other during the year was my account last spring of ourtwo-year-long struggle to get the US immigration authorities to recognise that my wife has a right to live with me in my own country. It appears that many of you have also experienced the obtuseness and inflexibility of the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service.

Just after that column appeared, I came across a story of a man named Raul Blanco, whose application for citizenship had been repeatedly turned down because he had failed to provide a full set of fingerprints. As Blanco patiently explained in letter after letter, he couldn't supply a full set because he had only seven fingers, having lost three in an industrial accident years earlier in his native Cuba. At last report, Blanco was still trying to get someone at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service to understand his problem. He would be better off trying to find the missing fingers.

My wife, I am pleased to tell you, received her documentation six weeks after my column ran and still has all her fingers, so all things considered it has been a pretty good year. And on that note, I wish you all a very happy, prosperous and fully digited 2000.

`Notes from a Big Country' (Doubleday pounds 16.99)

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